Jane Brox grew up in Massachusetts’ Merrimac Valley, now lives in Maine and has written a number of wonderful books (Here and Nowhere Else; Five Thousand Days Like This One).

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, begins like this:

“Although fire has blazed in hearths and flared from pine torches for half a million years, the earliest known stone lamps–fashioned by Ice Age humans during the Pleistocene–are no more than forty thousand years old…Often the lamps were merely unworked flat slabs of limestone, or limestone with natural cavities for the nubs of tallow–animal fat–that had to be replenished every hour…

Eighteen thousand years ago, while above [the cave painters at Lascaux] herds funneled through valleys on their way to the plains near the coast, people ventured far beyond the reach of day–working their way down through stone corridors and twisting through narrows–to draw from memory on the limestone walls and ceilings”…[In 1960, explorers discovered] “a spoon-shaped lamp carved of red sandstone…The lamp possesses a refined beauty: its maker created a perfectly symmetrical bowl, polished the sandstone smooth, and incised the handle with chevrons…Hold it again as it once was held, and the animals will emerge out of the darkness as you pass. Nothing stays still. Shadows nestle in the cavities; a flicker of light across pale protruding rock turns a hoof or raises a head. One shape recedes as another emerges, and everything lingers in the imagination.”

She moves up through wicks (originally made of juniper twigs or moss), candles, lanterns (“Time of Dark Streets”), lighthouses, and gaslight.

Back in the day, streets were perpetually dark, allowing thieves, hustlers, and prostitutes to roam freely, and also affording cover for the private emotions that play over our faces and eyes when we know nobody’s looking. Artificial light changed all that:

“Gaslight also transformed the crowds walking the streets: darting eyes, staring eyes, averted hooded eyes; myriad sounds and colors; confinement and freedom—all became illuminated. What was a walker but “a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness” [quoting Baudelaire], according the street a soul, according it the power to take one’s own away?”

From anthropologist Walter Hough: “The Eskimo have no phrase expressing a greater degree of misery than ‘a woman without a lamp.’ After the death of a woman her lamp is placed upon her grave.”

“Historian A. Roger Ekirch discovered that medieval villagers slept in a different way than modern people. Each night, they experienced divided sleep. They would go to bed soon after sundown, sleep for four or five hours—this was called ‘first sleep’—and then wake up an hour or two after midnight. Some people inevitably took advantage of the early-morning hours to get out of bed and work: students bent over their books; women did housework they couldn’t get to during the day. Some even visited neighbors or slipped out of the house to steal firewood or rob an orchard. It was a good time for sex. But frequently people would lie quietly in bed, resting or talking, before they fell back into a lighter, dream-filled sleep—called ‘second sleep’—that lasted until sunrise. The quiet, free time in the small hours would have been dearly valued in a society where the days were filled with labor and obligation.

Divided sleep, Ekirch notes, began to slip away as artificial light increased”…

Perhaps nowhere does Brox get more at the “ecstatic truth” of light than in this passage about Van Gogh’s The Café Terrace on the Place du ForumArles, at Night:

“The glow of gaslight washes the walls of the café and its canopy roof…[b]ut beyond the terrace, the dark increases quickly, and stars glitter in the gaps between buildings. Present-day astrophysicist Charles Whitney suggests that van Gogh ‘has overpopulated the small patch of sky in view of the interference that might be expected from the café lights.’ And van Gogh himself once insisted, ‘I should be desperate if my figures were correct…I do not want them to be academically correct…My great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodelings, changes in reality, so that they may become yes, lies if you like –but truer than literal truth.’ ”



  1. Your posts bring me back to the real and essential. Not to mention, they make me feel less insane. Thank you!

  2. hmmm, truer than truth.
    So there is something we perceive which is truer than what we see. I thought so.

  3. I loved these words: I, too, have been experiencing "divided sleep." Good to know that instead of nearing a psychotic break, as I'd feared, I'm simply slowly, inexorably, moving–as in so many other areas of my life–toward the mindset of a medieval villager.


  4. I loved these words: I, too, have been experiencing "divided sleep." Good to know that instead of nearing a psychotic break, as I'd feared, I'm simply slowly, inexorably, moving–as in so many other areas of my life–toward the mindset of a medieval villager.


  5. Michael Demers says: Reply

    Yea! I'm all for divided sleep. Sounds like the way to go for me.

  6. Your post reminds me of CS Lewis — this world and everything in it is real, but in the world to come, everything will be Real, with a capital "R". Complete and replete with being and life. Kind of like the world that the characters in The Last Battle find themselves after Narnia is destroyed.

  7. Anonymous says: Reply

    'Truer than literal truth' – I love that. It's Eckhartian.

  8. I first saw "divided sleep" in Spain, a few months before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Both events took me by surprise, but "divided sleep" seemed a greater miracle to me than the man on the moon.
    Then again, my prism was the lens of youth.

    The entire country of Spain woke up and had a light breakfast around 8 am. A roll, an egg, and coffee wakened the belly. Off to work! Or school! Or play!

    Everyone came home around noon or 1 pm as it was just too darn hot out to do anything. The divided sleep was siesta. After a meal (medium as I recall)….fruits, and light fare….off to bed for a sound sleep. The sun would burn, but the country snoozed.

    About 5 pm, you returned to do what you were doing, and came home for a grand meal at 10 pm-ish. This was a whopper several course meal, wine, beer, paella if Basque, and when all was done, goodnight Irene came across the serene.

    As a teenager, this seemed the way life should go; sleep several times of day and night.
    Siesta is still common in hot climes, and cultures.
    The participants seem more filled with love too.

    But the Van Gogh caught my eyes on this post.
    Few know that he did not start as a painter.
    He was a minister and wanted to speak to the poorest of the poor about Jesus Christ. So he went where they were….deep in the mines. Many of his early paintings depict miners and poor folks.

    Van Gogh was a total flop at making people understand the marvel of Christ. The daily life of the poorest of the poor told them of the harshnest of life, not the exquisite beauty to be found, in nature, and in one another. "The Potato Eaters" capture the face of poverty folks he knew as evangelist.

    His failure to reach souls was thought to be part of his depression experiences, that would eventually climax in suicide. In France, a nurse at the asylum holding Vincent opened the window for fresh air, and the field of spring was filled with flowers. Vincent got up and painted "Irises"…on display near you at the Getty Museum in LA.

    He began to express Christ in paintings, not words.
    Wheatfields is very much about communion.
    Starry Night is filled with globs of light…..just like the Light of the World.

    Don McLean sang of this man in his song, Starry, Starry Nights, aka "Vincent". The haunting refrain in the song is the haunting loss of souls who do not understand Christ too:

    "And now I think I know what you tried to say to me
    how you suffered for your sanity
    how you tried to set them free.
    They would not listen
    they're not
    list'ning still
    perhaps they never will."

    Both Christ and Vincent tried to set them free; one with parables of Truth and Light, the other with sermons in dark mines, and finally pictures of glory.
    They would not listen
    they're not list'ning still
    remains true for many even today.

    I urge you Google the full lyrics to Starry Starry Nights and the full song gives a glimpse into the man, who wanted people to know their Creator and God, but felt he was a failure and killed himself.

    When I think of all the dimensions to this complex man, I am ready for a siesta. G'nite!

  9. I found it all on YouTube, and am shocked at how much I forgot about Don McLean's "Vincent".
    I am now deaf and cannot hear him, but you can, and I can in my memory.

    YouTube here:

    Lyrics here:
    starry night
    paint your palette blue and grey

    look out on a summer's day
    with eyes that know the
    darkness in my soul.
    Shadows on the hills
    sketch the trees and the daffodils

    catch the breeze and the winter chills

    in colors on the snowy linen land.
    And now I understand what you tried to say to me

    how you suffered for your sanity
    how you tried to set them free.
    They would not listen
    they did not know how

    perhaps they'll listen now.

    starry night
    flaming flo'rs that brightly blaze

    swirling clouds in violet haze reflect in
    Vincent's eyes of China blue.
    Colors changing hue
    morning fields of amber grain

    weathered faces lined in pain
    are soothed beneath the artist's
    loving hand.
    And now I understand what you tried to say to me

    how you suffered for your sanity
    how you tried to set them free.
    perhaps they'll listen now.

    For they could not love you
    but still your love was true

    and when no hope was left in sight on that starry
    starry night.
    You took your life
    as lovers often do;
    But I could have told you
    this world was never
    meant for one
    as beautiful as you.

    starry night
    portraits hung in empty halls

    frameless heads on nameless walls
    with eyes
    that watch the world and can't forget.
    Like the stranger that you've met

    the ragged men in ragged clothes

    the silver thorn of bloddy rose
    lie crushed and broken
    on the virgin snow.
    And now I think I know what you tried to say to me

    how you suffered for your sanity

    how you tried to set them free.
    They would not listen
    they're not
    list'ning still
    perhaps they never will.

    The Internet loses things of great value; now, they are here with this post together. Enjoy!
    Ps. Look at all the times Jesus is reflected in the works and words.

  10. Lovely, Danny, thank you for the lyrics; I remember the song well…I'm sure you know of Vincent's incredible Letters to Theo (you've inspired me to caption his Cafe Terrace with a quote about light). As you say, he was absolutely destitute his whole adult life. Nobody "got" his work. His beloved brother subsidized him. He was one of the true "little ones." The Potato Eaters and that painting of the battered work shoes that is somehow the face of humanity. Very close to Christ.

  11. You know, Heather…..
    you are very kind to first time commenters at your spot. Thank you!

    The quote you chose is perfect for the portrait above.
    You have added the Divine to this post!

    And this part—light that calls the dead from their graves—Vincent refers every bit as much to the SON, as he does to the Sun.

    Calvin Miller once wrote of his discipleship and said he worked from a murky palette. A minister and water colorist, he knew that adding darkness and shadows made things recede, while adding light made them come forward in a picture painting.

    Miller alluded that the Master Artist, our Creator, does the same with each of our lives. Having read your blurb on you, I know you will agree.
    We all have dark times in our lives. And we have moments of light too. In doing so and providing BOTH items in our lives, the Master Artist gives life to us! The contrast of good times and bad for each of us gives movement and life…ART….from our Artist.

    A friend went to Aruba, a Dutch colony and returned with a metal tin of cookies. The tin from Holland had van Gogh paintings on all four sides and on top too.
    When the cookies were consumed, I went through all my favorite photos over the years, and placed them in the van Gogh tin.
    At times alone, I pull all of them out and fill up my memory with my own "van Gogh's"….my children and family and friends.

    I savor withdrawing them over and over, more than I savored the cookies.

    My own discipleship is very much influenced by Vincent, and the frustrations he knew at getting Light and truth to any and all.

    I have Van Gogh calendars from many years and books on his life, and yes, "Letters to Theo".
    ALL of his works bring me closer to God.
    (Irises is my favorite).

    The only one close is a sole portrait by Rembrandt,
    "The Return of The Prodigal Son"….housed in St. Petersburg, Russia.

    I pray I live long enough to see Irises in LA at the Getty, and Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son" in Russia.

    Your addition of the quote, and your kind words this day are food for my soul.
    It will be remembered!
    God bless you abundantly!